Monthly Archives: January 2010

Touchstone by Laurie R. King

Touchstone by Laurie R. King

2007. 548 pages (paperback)

From: Christmas gift from my sister K.

In a nutshell:

Bureau agent Harris Stuyvesant travels to London in 1926 to investigate a suspected British bomber who has been behind several explosions in the States.  A shady government official connects him to a WWI veteran, Bennet Grey, who has the ability to sense when someone is deliberately lying.  With Grey’s assistance, Stuyvesant goes undercover among one of England’s elite families.


The historical backdrop to this novel is fairly unique.  It is the interwar years in England, and tensions are high in London due to an impending miner’s strike.  The labor unions and the ruling class are at each other’s throats. I appreciated that this was a time period in history that isn’t usually covered in fiction.

Unfortunately, the first 150 pages are so are slow going.  It is very heavy on exposition and there’s an element of showing off research in the dialogue of the main characters.  In a Facebook chat with my sister K. who gave me the book, I admitted that I was finding the beginning to be slow.  She said, “It gets better when they get to the house.”

“The house” is the Hurleigh House, the great estate where Stuyvesant begins his undercover investigation.  It is clear that King loves describing great English country houses – this was demonstrated also in Justice Hall, one of her Mary Russell/ Sherlock Holmes books.  Hurleigh House has some great character to it though, so I didn’t mind the long descriptions too much.

Both K. and I agreed that we weren’t sure we liked Harris Stuyvesant at first.  K. said she was particularly perturbed by this because she had liked Mary Russell right away in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.  But Stuyvesant comes into his own as a character when he goes undercover.  King does a good job of writing smart characters.  I love getting into their heads as they figure out individuals and group dynamics.  Stuyvesant understands how to win over people, how to strategically play a part to get people to respond a certain way.  He does make mistakes, but it’s still cool to read the intelligence at work.

The ending was not entirely predictable and for that I was glad.  Some of the characters are revealed to be different from how Stuyvesant had pegged them.

The book could certainly have been edited down, in my opinion.  There’s an interesting story there, but it is suffocated in places by too much exposition of the history or the setting.  If you’ve never read Laurie King before, you should start with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, which is one of my all-time favorite books, with one of my favorite literary characters, Mary Russell.

Other reviews:

Genre Go Round Reviews

Kingdom Books, Mysteries

Someone’s Read it Already

Tillabooks: Will’s Book Blog

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Filed under Mysteries & Thrillers

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

2009. 272 pages (hardcover)

From: the public library

Heard about from: The Written World

For the challenge: What’s in a Name

In a nutshell:

This young adult novel is a retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses fairy tale.  Actually, my copy of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales calls it “The Shoes That Were Danced To Pieces.”


Soon after I started reading this book, I stopped a moment and read “The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces.”  In the fairy tale, the princesses wear out their shoes every night and it’s a mystery how they do this.  So, the king issues an open call for princes to figure it out in three days, the reward being the throne by marriage to the princess.  If they don’t, they are killed by the king.  The princesses in the fairy tale appear to like dancing at this mysterious ball, and don’t want their fun being spoiled by any of the princes.  A soldier eventually succeeds in solving the mystery and marries the eldest princess.

In Jessica Day George’s book, the princesses are cursed by a pact their mother made, to dance every evening at the ball of an underworld king.  Due to the underworld magic, they are unable to speak of their curse to anyone.  The king does seek the help of other princes, but they are killed by the underworld king’s magic, not by the king himself.  So the book’s retelling of the story makes a whole lot more people sympathetic.

Jessica Day George also supplies the story with some light historical context.  The kingdom of the princesses is Westfalin (similar to the historical region of Westphalia in Germany) and terms of address include “Herr” and “Frau”.  The Catholic Church plays a role too, as the witchcraft comes to the attention of an archbishop.

I liked Jessica Day George’s descriptions of the sisters, such as how they describe the last three sisters “the younger set.”  Some of the twelve were little more than a type: the religious one, the one who plays piano, the vain one.  But I particularly liked Poppy, the rebel, who retains a sense of humor throughout the princesses’ ordeal.  Rose is the sister that is the main character, but Poppy was actually more interesting and I wish she had a bigger part, or even got her own book.

The hero, Galen, distinguishes himself as a man who knits, because as a soldier, you had to learn to make your own socks and clothing.  This skill plays an integral part in the story, fabric being a thing that can contain magical properties.

Princess of the Midnight Ball was a quick pleasant read overall, which was just the type of book I wanted after I had finished Touchstone, a longer, more densely plotted book (that I will review soon.)


Filed under Fantasy, Supernatural & Surreal

Library Loot: January 27

Library Loot is hosted by Eva at A Striped Armchair and Marg at Reading Adventures.

I checked out three books from the library this time, so now I have ten checked out total.  I can get away with this amount because my public library allows you to renew twice as long as no one else has a hold on it.  So I usually can have a book out for four weeks.

Anyway, the three in this library loot:

The Wreck Of The River of Stars by Michael Flynn

– This is by the same author of Eifelheim, one of my favorite reads of last year, so I’m very excited to read this one.  The River of Stars is the name of a doomed spaceship, thus the very sci-fi appearance of the cover.

Veil of Lies: A Medieval Noir by Jeri Westerson

– I saw the sequel to Veil of Lies in the New Mysteries section.  It sounded interesting, but I like to start at the beginning so I trotted back into the stacks to see if the first book was there.  I was in luck!  Stories set in medieval times tend to attract my interest and I like a good noir.

The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank

– My library has a display that is sometimes thematic but usually just whatever the librarians feel like putting up there.  I remembered reading a good review of this book.  I’d seen the cover picture as a thumbnail image reviews, but never in person: I had thought that the image on the cover was a bird but it’s actually an aerial shot of a young woman walking in a red scarf.


Filed under Library Loot

What My Books Say About Me (meme)

I saw this meme going around the blogosphere started by the blog Stuck in a Book and decided to participate.  The rules are:

1.) Go to your bookshelves…
2.) Close your eyes. If you’re feeling really committed, blindfold yourself.
3.) Select ten books at random. Use more than one bookcase, if you have them, or piles by the bed, or… basically, wherever you keep books.
4.) Use these books to tell us about yourself – where and when you got them, who got them for you, what the book says about you, etc. etc…..
5.) Have fun! Be imaginative. Doesn’t matter if you’ve read them or not – be creative. It might not seem easy to start off with, and the links might be a little tenuous, but I think this is a fun way to do this sort of meme.
6.) Feel free to cheat a bit, if you need to…

Here are my ten:

1. Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare

I bought this one long ago for my introductory English course when I was a freshman in college.  I confess that I’ve never much cared for reading Shakespeare, or any play for that matter.  My best experience of Shakespeare was watching a performance of “The Taming of the Shrew” in Stratford-upon-Avon.

2. The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin Jr.

I read this book in high school and liked it, eventually buying a copy at a used-book sale but not reading it again.  I hardly remember anything about it now, but I am planning to re-read it this year as part of the Flashback Challenge.

3. Sanctuary by William Faulkner

Another book that I bought for a special topics course in college that focused only on the authors Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor.  I loved Faulkner’s style of writing even if some stuff went over my head.  Sanctuary was the least dense of the Faulkner books that I read.

4. National Geographic’s Birds of North America

I had to buy this one for a field biology course, which was the best science general education course I could have picked.  We got to tromp around outside, learning to identify birds, bird calls, trees and plants.  Have I used the book since?  Actually, no I don’t think I have.  But I like to have it around as reference, just in case.

5. The Outcast of Redwall by Brian Jacques

The Redwall series by Brian Jacques were childhood favorites of mine.    Traditionally, the ferrets, rats, weasels, etc were evil in the Redwall universe.  I remember being excited to read Outcast of Redwall as the main character would be a ferret and that promised something different.  Unfortunately, this book would only serve to underscore the determinism of the Redwall universe.  The mouse who raises the ferret from birth says in the end “Veil was bad . . . I know that now.  Some creatures cannot help being the way they are.”  I was furious at the ending of the book and it caused my subsequent disenchantment with the series.  As an adult, I’m still fond of the series and own seven of them still, but I should probably donate Outcast because of my strong feelings against it.

6. Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons

This book was given to me by my sister, because she knew I liked the movie which stars a young Jena Malone.  I can’t remember now how the book and movie compare, but I believe the book is a little darker.

7. I Could Tell You Stories by Patricia Hampl

For my senior honors project in college, I explored autobiography, memoir and the concept “everyone has a story.”  I bought this book at the beginning of my exploration.  It didn’t get used for my paper in the end, but I remember liking it.

8. Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos

Finally, a more recent purchase!  I first read this book as a library copy and then bought my own copy last year at a library used book sale.  Despite the generic title, this is really a great read.  I got to see de los Santos speak at one of the annual National Book Festivals in D.C. and she was funny and personable.

9. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms by Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray

10. Personnages, 2nd edition by Michael D. Oates and Jacques F. Dubois

All I can say about these two is why do I still have them around?  Both are books that I needed in college (the second is a French exercise book).  I don’t need them anymore.

In conclusion, what this random selection says about me is that a lot of my collection is still populated by books purchased when I was an undergraduate.  I graduated almost six years ago!

The truth is: I am actually not a huge book-buyer.  I heavily rely on the public library to supply my reading needs.  Hence, many of the books I own are those that I was required to purchase.  I have shed a lot of my college books over the years, but yes, I still own at least three or four Norton Anthologies.  (Former and current English majors know what I’m talking about.)


Filed under Uncategorized

Books in Film: Metropolitan (1990)

Every now and then, I thought it’d be interesting to write a post on books featured in films.  I did this once before with the film Next Stop Wonderland (starring Hope Davis).

Pardon me for picking another relatively unknown film, but books feature so prominently in Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan that I couldn’t resist.

First about the film itself (this part is taken from a review of the film I wrote over a year ago):

Metropolitan follows a group of young privileged New Yorkers, about the age of college freshmen, as they progress through the debutante season, with particular focus on the after-parties held into the early morning hours. Giving us an outsider perspective on this kind of life, is a ‘West Sider’ named Tom who reluctantly lets himself get adopted by this group.

There’s a real chemistry within the ensemble that make me feel fond of the characters even when they display unlikable behavior. The dialogue has a wit and vocabulary to die for – it reminds me of dialogue in Austen or Dickens – where it’s not really the way that people do talk, but I kind of wish it was.

And now onto the books featured in the film:

There is a terrific ongoing discussion between two of the characters about Jane Austen. In one scene, the warm-hearted, bookish Audrey Rouget is telling Tom her favorite books: “by Tolstoy, War and Peace and by Austen, Persuasion and Mansfield Park.”

“Mansfield Park!” Tom exclaims in disgust. He explains his reaction by referencing a critical essay by Lionel Trilling, who deplored the book. Tom goes on to say:

“The context of the book and nearly everything Jane Austen wrote is near-ridiculous from today’s perspective.”

Audrey replies: “Has it ever occurred to you that today, looked at from Jane Austen’s perspective, would look even worse?”  (Such an awesome line.)

Later in the film, Audrey tells Tom she has read Lionel Trilling’s essay, but found it strange.  “He says no one could like Fanny Price.  I like her.”  Apparently one of Trilling’s problems is that Fanny is too “good” to be likable. Audrey asks, “What’s wrong with a virtuous heroine?” (Personally, Mansfield Park is one of my least favorite Austen novels, but I applaud Audrey for sticking to her guns.)

At this point in the conversation, Tom admits without shame that he actually hasn’t read Mansfield Park.  “You don’t have to read a book to have an opinion on it,” he claims.  Furthermore, he tells Audrey that he doesn’t read novels at all, just literary criticism.  The film intends for him to sound ridiculous and he is.

Fortunately, Tom is not a hopeless case, as can be seen by a glimpse of Persuasion on his nightstand later in the film:

He tells Audrey that he is surprised by how much he is liking it.

Other books randomly featured in Metropolitan:

In one scene, the arrogant but wickedly funny Nick reads the back cover of Wardell Pomeroy’s Girls and Sex in mock-serious tones.  At a different gathering, under the influence of mescaline, Nick gets all depressed and sits in a corner with a children’s book.  Another character sits next to him and asks what he’s reading.  He says, with feeling, “The Story of Babar.  I forgot how beautiful it was.”


Filed under Books in Film

After Dark by Haruki Murakami

Trans. by Jay Rubin

2004. 191 pages. Hardcover.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

The book follows a small group of characters over the course of one night.  19-year-old Mari reads by herself in an all-night diner and meets an acquaintance from the past.  This chance meeting indirectly draws Mari into the aftermath of a violent attack on a Chinese prostitute.  Meanwhile, Mari’s sister Eri deeply sleeps where an unplugged tv ominously flickers.


I was intrigued about this book when I read a review of it in the blog, Book Dilettante.  I like movies where events happen over the course of one night, so I liked the idea of After Dark: surreal encounters that occur while most are asleep.  Also, I wanted to read a book by Haruki Murakami.  I know that The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore are more known and liked, but After Dark was the one on the shelf at the library.

I liked the weird aspects of the small book, such as the strangeness that surrounds Eri’s sleep.  Or how a turn in the plot finds an abandoned cell phone ringing in a store, where anyone who picks it up hears threats on their life.

I was disappointed in the book overall, though.  I wasn’t expecting a grand story, but for a book that is the equivalent of an all-nighter, I was hoping to feel a more coherent mood and atmosphere.  I got that in spots, but not as the whole.

Mostly, though, I didn’t care for the writing style.  I’m thinking a large part of this could be a translation issue.  The dialogue didn’t feel natural and came off very flat, almost as if the wrong English words were chosen in the effort to approximate casual talk.  There were ‘gonna’s’ and “whaddya mean’ and stuff like that.  And so, so, many ‘uh-huh’s’.  As I’ve watched some Japanese films, I’m guessing that the ‘uh-huh’ is a translation of the Japanese quick assenting “hai”.  I’d rather the ‘hai’ have been kept, really.  I don’t think that uh-huh’s even accurately capture the English noise of assent.

A different type of stylistic choice that I didn’t care for was the ‘we’ perspective held throughout the book.  ‘We’ are the swooping camera observing these characters, particularly with Eri’s scenes, which makes some sense as that character is a model.  But I found this perspective to be artificial and cumbersome, rather than thought-provoking.

I’m not going to take this book as an indicator of my future reaction to Murakami and it won’t keep me from trying another book of his.  If you have read Murakami, recommendations are welcome.  Also, has anyone read a translated book and suspected that the translation was inadequate?  I’d be interested to hear if others have experienced this.


Filed under Fantasy, Supernatural & Surreal

Teaser Tuesday

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Basically, open the book you’re currently reading and share a couple of sentences from that page on your blog.   Avoid spoilers of course.

At first glance, she seemed merely to be gesturing the children to her, but an attentive viewer could not miss the resemblance between woman and weapon: thin, taut, and razor-sharp.

from p. 200 of Touchstone by Laurie R. King


Filed under Teaser Tuesday

Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth

1800. 118 pages (including introduction). Hardcover.

From: A university library

For the Challenge: Read 19 Books Older than Myself


When I was hunting for books that would fit into my personal challenge of reading 19 books older than myself, I had a hard time finding a book for the decade between 1800 and 1809.  For the other decades, I could usually spot a title or author that was already familiar.  While searching the internet for possibilities, the name Maria Edgeworth kept popping up, so I finally settled on Castle Rackrent.

Maria Edgeworth, a tiny English woman at only 4 feet 7 inches tall, published Castle Rackrent when she was 33.  Her writing career was encouraged by her father, who moved the family to Ireland when Maria was fifteen.  Her resulting acquaintance the Irish people is displayed in Castle Rackrent.

In this very brief novel (about 85 pages total), an old Irish peasant by the name of Thady Quirk narrates the “Memoirs of the Rackrent Family” – a tale that encompasses several generations of Rackrents whose imprudent marriages and greedy, foolish estate management brings about their ruin.  Thady Quirk is an unreliable narrator, glossing over the faults of this family to whom he is loyal, betraying more about them than he realizes. (Though another review that I read says that perhaps Thady is being tongue-in-cheek and knows that he is subtly belittling the Rackrents.  I can buy that.)

The novel’s main strength and my favorite aspect is the voice of Thady Quirk: the cadence of Edgeworth’s writing means that I could just about hear the lilt in Thady’s narration.  Here’s an excerpt from Thady’s description of Sir Murtagh Rackrent’s surprising marriage to a widow from a family called Skinflint.

I knew how it was; Sir Murtagh was a great lawyer, and looked to the great Skinflint estate; there, however, he overshot himself; for though one of the co-heiresses, he was never the better for her, for she outlived him many’s the long day – he could not see that to be sure when he married her.  I must say for her, she made him the best of wives, being a very notable, stirring woman, and looking close to everything.  But I always suspected she had Scotch blood in her veins; any thing else I could have looked over in her from a regard to the family.

I’m not sure that you can actually catch the cadence from just that bit – it seems to be a cumulative effect while reading straight through.  But the excerpt definitely shows the humor of the writing.

I was a little confused by the footnotes and endnotes attached to the story.  At first I thought it was something added for this 1964 edition of the book, but they are actually additions made by Maria Edgeworth herself.  The notes are mainly used to explain Irish terms and customs that the English person would presumably not know.  She launches off into little stories in the endnotes that are amusing in and of themselves.

Bruce Teets, in his introduction to this edition, writes “Castle Rackrent is notable as the first regional novel of any consequence.”  This statement and others in the introduction posit that Maria Edgeworth’s work is important as precursors to other authors’ work, as an influence on other authors.  It’s the kind of praise that doesn’t really seem like praise at all, but more of a nod of acknowledgement.

I did like this insightful statement from Teets in the introduction though:

By choosing Thady as her narrator, [Edgeworth] was able to use to advantage another technical device – the minor-character point of view.  Again she loses something: the dash and heroics, the color and romance of high life above-stairs.  But none of that was to her purpose, which was to depict the Ireland of the majority of the Irish and from their point of view.  And most people are, in life, minor characters.

I read this book in a couple of hours while waiting for the Verizon technician on Wednesday.  I found it pleasant but I can’t see any reason why someone should necessarily run out and read it.  However, if the idea of an old, humorous novel set in Ireland appeals to you, then you might want to check it out.

Other reviews:

Age 30+ . . . A Lifetime of Books (thought the footnotes were better than the story)

Desperate Reader (really liked it)

Melmoth the Lost (sees a similarity to Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day.  I thought that too!)

Pue’s Occurrences: The Irish History Blog (recommends it)

Read, Reading, Read (thought it was just ok)


Filed under Uncategorized

One Bullet Away by Nathaniel Fick

One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer by Nathaniel Fick

2005. 369 pages (hardcover)

From: The public library

For the challenge: Memorable Memoir

In a nutshell:

Nathaniel Fick describes his career in the Marines, from when he started training in 1998 to when he left at the rank of captain in 2003.   He served in Afghanistan as an infantry officer and then in Iraq as a lieutenant in the Recon Marines.

Why I decided to read this book:

How I decided to read this book is roundabout.  This past fall, Netflix skipped over Little Dorrit in my queue and gave me the first disc of Generation Kill instead, which I had been waffling about watching.  Generation Kill is a miniseries based on Evan Wright’s non-fiction book of the same name, and it covers his observations as an embedded reporter with the Bravo Company in the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion.  When watching the miniseries, I was impressed by the competent leadership of Lt. Nate Fick, as he was portrayed in the miniseries.

Last month I stopped at the library because I thought one of my interlibrary loan books had come in, but it hadn’t.  Not wanting my trip to be a waste, I browsed around and came across One Bullet Away.   I love it when books come into my hands by such serendipitous routes.

Alexander Skarsgard and Starks Sands as Sgt. Colbert and Lt. Fick in Generation Kill


Nathaniel Fick received a degree in classics from Dartmouth before joining the Marines, and that blend of scholar and soldier proves to be a good mix in writing this book.  Though Fick goes into detail about his training and war experience, I rarely felt lost, as can happen with me when military slang and terminology is tossed around, as it was in film version of Generation Kill.  Occasionally I forgot the meaning of an acronym while reading and wished for a glossary, but it didn’t impede my comprehension overall.

I liked reading about the Iraq conflict from Fick’s perspective.  He was an officer, so the book includes explanations of how he made hard decisions on the fly.  It definitely is an excellent book for examining how it is to lead under pressure.  And yet his rank meant that he was close to the action as well.

The level of detail is astonishing and vivid.  Fick does a good job of placing the reader in the thick of it.  Here’s an excerpt from when the platoon is approaching the Iraqi town of Muwaffiqiya:

“There’s an obstacle on the bridge.”  Colbert’s voice was measured but taut, the way an airline pilot would tell his passengers about an engine fire.  Then I saw it, too – what looked like a Dumpster full of scrap metal pulled out into the road.  Large-diameter pipes lay scattered on both sides of it.  There was only one explanation.

“Back up, back up, back the f— up.”  The fear was palpable.  You could hear it and feel and even taste it, like a penny under your tongue.  But the Marines stayed calm.  We were jammed together with trees to our left, buildings to our right, an obstacle in front of us, and the rest of the battalion pressing in from behind. (p. 267)

One Bullet Away encompasses a range of emotions, from humor to heartbreak.  And there is a definite arc to the story; one feels the passage of time.  By the time the book has reached April 2003, Fick’s training in Officer Candidates School feels far away.  You sense how much things have changed, both for and in him and in the world.

The phrase “support our troops” seems so reflexive and emptied of meaning to my ears.  I sometimes feel that the speaker of the phrase is trying more to signify something about themselves than actually using it as an exhortation.  For instance, it may be used partly as an utterance of protection against accusations of unpatriotism.  I know that I used it that way, or a phrase like it, in college discussions about the war back in 2003.

So when I say that this book made me truly appreciate the people in the armed forces, I am trying my hardest to not make that seem like an empty platitude.  I can’t imagine facing the decisions and danger that the author and his fellow Marines faced.  The civilian life is not inferior but it is very different.

Fick does illuminate problems he saw while in Iraq, including certain decisions made by higher command.  The Marines see the initial welcome of the Iraqi people begin to sour and there is a sense of squandered opportunity.

At the close of the book, I felt satisfied in the reading experience but also sobered.  I believe I will be thinking about this book for a while yet.


Filed under Memoir and Personal Essays, Non-Fiction

Library Loot: January 13th

The internet has been down at the apartment since the weekend, and was fixed this morning by the technician.  So this is a quick ‘yay’ post for the return of connection.

I stopped at the library on Monday night to return a book and of course checked out a couple of more, since I was there.

The two books I picked up were:

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

This is a retelling of the the fairytale, the Twelve Dancing Princesses.  Should be a nice light read.

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman

I don’t really like the cover, but I am intrigued by what I have heard about this travel memoir: a suspenseful story of two young women who go to China in 1986, soon after that country was open to travelers.  From what I understand from others’ reviews, something goes psychologically wrong with the author’s traveling companion while they are there.

Library Loot is hosted by Eva at A Striped Armchair and Marg at Reading Adventures.


Filed under Library Loot